Sunday, June 21, 2015

Godspell, Cain Park

This show, consisting of biblical parables and the lyrics of hymns set to rock and pop melodies, has been around for almost half a century. Still, many people never tire of it, probably because of the infectious energy with which it is usually presented.

Some naysayers might call it “spiritual Gruyere” (slightly pretentious cheese for the religiously inclined), or a cult training workshop (the wild-eyed devotion to a single individual’s every utterance, even Jesus Christ, can begin to feel a tad creepy at times). But naysayers be damned! (Not literally, of course.) This staging of Godspell at Cain Park’s Alma Theatre offers plenty of enjoyment along with the bite-size nuggets of behavior tips gleaned from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

It’s essentially a loose jumble of scenes that glide from one Gos-pearl of wisdom (“If a man steals your shirt, give him your coat.”) to another (“Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also.”). But once the simple lessons are put to the music of Stephen Schwartz, it all takes on a patina of youthful innocence and universal love. We’ll leave our cynicism at the door, and pick it up again on our way out.

Co-directors Ian Wolfgang Hinz and Joanna May Hunkins throw everything into this mix—from audience participation via Pictionary and charades to non-stop running and dancing choreographed by Katie Nabors Strong. With some of the performers slipping down a half-pipe slide and dropping down on a fire station pole, the air is filled with smiling, amped-up performers who generate a definite feel-good vibe. To be honest, some of the parables are so inventively presented, the chopped up stories get a bit lost in the muddle of hyperkinetic staging.

It’s all led by Warren E. Franklin III as Jesus, clad in a “We are a Colony” t-shirt, in honor of Jim Brennan, the popular owner of Brennan’s Colony tavern in Cleveland Heights, who was killed one year ago in a robbery. Franklin is lean, limber and charming, with a warm singing voice. But his projection fades at times when speaking dialogue.

Each of the actors playing his apostles deliver stirring performances at times, even though they all wear pretty much the same Heaven’s Gate, true-believer grins from start to finish.

Among them, Douglas F. Bailey II generates some clever Jack Black-ish laughs, Treva Offut nails the mellow “By My Side,” and Eric Fancher pumps a lot of zazz into several of his characterizations. Scott Esposito lends his powerful baritone voice to the role of Judas, and Colleen Longshaw provides a reliable vocal foundation for show-stopping numbers such as “Bless the Lord” and “We Beseech Thee.”

It’s hard to resist the calories these actors are expending, supported by an able crew of musicians under the direction of keyboardist Jordan Cooper. And why bother to try? After all, as some say, a religion is just a cult with a century or so of history behind it. So relax, take in the up-with-people messaging, and ride the wave of these reliable tunes.

Through June 28, presented by the City of Cleveland Heights at Cain Park, corner of Lee and Superior roads in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000.

No comments: